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NREL Challenge

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Solar District Cup

Challenging multidisciplinary student teams to design and model solar-plus-storage systems for a campus or district.
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Overview

Challenge Overview

Welcome to the U.S. Department of Energy Solar District Cup Collegiate Design Competition!

The Solar District Cup challenges multidisciplinary student teams to design and model distributed energy systems for a campus or district. These systems integrate solar and battery storage across mixed-use districts or groups of buildings served by a common electrical distribution feeder. The competition engages students in engineering, finance, urban planning, sustainability, and other disciplines or degree programs to reimagine how energy is generated, managed, and used in a district.

The Solar District Cup launched in 2019. Learn more about the past classes of competitors, including winners and district use cases: 

Student teams assume the role of a solar-plus-storage developer to produce a conceptual design and financing proposal as well as analyze electric distribution grid interactions for a district use case. Teams compete in one of multiple divisions, each structured around a district use case. Winning teams are selected by industry judges for each division, based on the quality of their proposed solutions. The strongest submissions provide solutions that maximize the district’s energy offset and financial savings over the contracted or useful life of the system while integrating aesthetic, infrastructure, and community considerations. 

Students submit written deliverable packages for evaluation and present their solutions to judges live at an online competition event, at which the winners are determined and announced.       

            

APPROACH

The Solar District Cup is designed to inspire students to consider new career opportunities, learn industry-relevant skills, engage with the professional marketplace, and prepare to lead the next generation of workforce in distributed solar energy. As competitors, students:

  • Gain experience with innovative renewable energy design
  • Develop real-world solutions that shape the future of solar energy
  • Engage with industry professionals to forge relationships and connections that aid participating students’ transition to the solar energy workforce upon graduation
  • Compete to earn a trophy and national recognition.

The Solar District Cup encourages collaboration between academia and industry. The program seeks to establish public-private partnership and demonstrate corporate and nonprofit industry co-sponsorship.

 

NEW WAYS TO PARTICIPATE IN THE CLASS OF 2022-2023

New to the Class of 2022-2023 are a few updates to the way in which students can participate. The competition will accept collegiate team registration on a rolling basis, which means students can begin work and access learning resources on a timeline that best aligns with their academic calendar.  Student teams will receive their assigned district use case and access to modeling tools on a rolling basis starting September 8, 2022. Additionally, the Solar District Cup Class of 2022-2023 will allow for one-semester or two-quarter participation in the winter/spring.

Student teams will have two options for their district use cases: 

  1. Assignment to a district use case defined by competition organizers, as has been done in all previous iterations of the Solar District Cup, or
  2. A bring-your-own-district division in which students can self-select their district use case, utilizing the district’s available data, with missing data synthesis support by competition organizers. All student teams choosing to bring their own district will compete in a division against other teams bringing their own districts. 

PREVIOUS PROGRAMS

The Solar District Cup launched in 2019. Learn more about the past classes of competitors, including winners and district use cases: 

LEARN MORE

To learn more about the program and the current competition: 

The Solar District Cup is directed and administered by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and is funded by the DOE Solar Energy Technologies Office. Learn more.

Guidelines

Challenge Guidelines

GUIDELINES

The rules document provides a framework for student effort, student team submittal requirements, and judging evaluation. The Class of 2022-2023 Rules have been released and can be accessed under Resources in HeroX.

GOAL

The goal for each team is to design a solar-plus-storage system for a campus or district that maximizes energy offset and financial savings over the contracted or useful life of the system. Competition teams assess electric distribution grid interactions and assume the role of renewable energy systems developers to produce a power purchase agreement (PPA), lease, and/or cash purchase proposal for their division’s district.

The Solar District Cup has multiple divisions. Each division has a set of six teams competing against each other. Each team is tasked to design a solution for a use case of an existing mixed-use district or campus interested in increased distributed energy development. For most divisions, the competition organizers provide each team with the details of their division’s district use case. New for the class of 2022-2023, there is a division in which student teams identify their own defined district use case of electricity load and site data. A district use case is a defined area served by one or more electrical distribution feeders with a collection of spaces potentially available for PV installation, including but not limited to: building rooftops, facades, open land, parking, agricultural dual use, bodies of water, and other facilities.

 

WHAT TEAMS DO AND WIN

Teams submit two deliverables: a Progress Deliverable Package and a Final Deliverable Package.

A team competes against other teams in their division at a final competition event. Competition organizers assign teams to divisions upon registration. Each team designs its own solution for the assigned division’s district use case. The strongest team concepts are those that maximize the district’s energy offset and financial savings over the system’s contracted or useful lifetime while integrating aesthetic, infrastructure, and community considerations. A team wins based on its average score as determined by a panel of three to five judges who evaluate the competition entries through review of deliverable packages and presentations. The first-place winners of each division compete against each other to determine a Project Pitch winner. 

As competitors, students:

  • Gain experience with innovative renewable energy design
  • Develop real-world solutions that shape the future of solar energy
  • Engage with industry professionals to forge relationships and connections that aid participating students’ transition to the solar energy workforce upon graduation
  • Compete to earn a trophy and national recognition.

HOW JUDGING WORKS

A qualified panel of three to five judges—comprising subject-matter experts and representatives from the partner district use cases selected by the competition organizers—score finalist submissions according to the extent to which they agree that the content and formatting requirements were met and with the solution aligns with the judging statements listed below:

  • PROJECT PROPOSAL - The proposal presents a clear and concise summary of the project. Both the proposal and the presentation make a compelling case as to why the proposed solution is the best choice for the district given its needs, constraints, and goals.
  • CONCEPTUAL SYSTEM DESIGN - Conceptual system design proposes a creative and innovative solution that demonstrates excellent analysis, system design, optimal battery use strategy, and and understanding of the PV hosting capacity with distribution constraints.
  • FINANCIAL ANALYSIS - Financial analyses communicates a strong grasp of renewable energy project finance. Input assumptions are justifiable, calculations are correct, battery-operation strategy delivers maximum economic benefits, and pricing and rate of return are attractive to the market. The outputs of both the battery analysis and the customer savings analysis are included as tabs to the Excel-based financial model.
  • DEVELOPMENT PLAN - Proposed building, site, construction, and development plans with any rezoning adds significant value in a comprehensive, actionable, and feasible approach for the district and surrounding community members with distributional equity.

COMPETITION DELIVERABLES

Teams participating for a full academic year are expected to submit two deliverables: a Progress Deliverable Package and a Final Deliverable Package. Teams that submit the progress deliverable receive feedback from the organizer staff. Student teams participating for the spring semester (or winter/spring quarters) compete within their own division and submit only the Final Deliverable Package. These packages are summarized in Table 1 and Table 2 of the Rules and are described in greater detail in the appendices. Competition deliverables are submitted via the online HeroX competition platform.

Progress Deliverable Package—Solar PV System

  • A complete submission for the progress deliverable is the design and analysis of interconnected solar PV systems that maximize energy offset and savings over the system’s contracted or useful lifetime for the district use case.

Final Deliverable Package—Solar PV Plus Battery Electric Storage System

  • The Final Deliverable Package includes a complete conceptual design, modeling, and analysis of a proposed interconnected solar PV plus battery electric storage system that maximizes energy offset and savings during the system’s contracted or useful lifetime for the division district, given its use case parameters and conditions.

 

ELIGIBILITY

The Solar District Cup invites participation of teams comprising of at least three students enrolled in accredited U.S.-based collegiate institutions. Students must be enrolled in at least one class and be pursuing a degree for the duration of the competition. Students who graduate in the middle of the competition timeline may continue on the team as a mentor and contributor; they may contribute to the modeling, analysis, and deliverable components; however, they may not present to the judges in the final competition event. Students and faculty advisors are not required to be U.S. citizens at the time of the competition. Members of the judging panels, competition organizer staff, and U.S. Department of Energy and national laboratory employees are ineligible to compete.

Although any level of collegiate student is eligible to compete, the challenge scope is intended for multidisciplinary teams of upper-level undergraduate students. Student participation may be integrated into senior design or capstone project, count as elective or independent study course credit, be added to the curriculum of existing classes, treated as a seminar topic, engaged as part of a student interest club, or be an extracurricular student activity.

Each team is encouraged to have at least one faculty advisor, but this is not required for participation. Teams are also encouraged to connect with mentors inside or outside their school. If a team of students needs assistance in identifying a faculty advisor or mentor, they can contact the competition organizers for help.

By uploading a deliverable package, a team certifies that it is in compliance with the eligibility requirements. If the organizers become aware that a team or individual is not eligible, that team may be disqualified from competition.

Please see the Class of 2022-2023 Rules.

Timeline
Updates7

Challenge Updates

Registration for Full Academic Year Participation Closes Oct 6

Sept. 14, 2022, 2:08 p.m. PDT by NREL Challenge

Collegiate teams interested in participating in the academic year-long Solar District Cup competition must register by Thursday, Oct. 6. at 5 p.m. ET. Applying by this date offers teams the full competition experience, including more time to execute their projects, the chance to define their own district use case, and feedback from competition organizers on progress deliverables.

Ready to enter? Just click the “Solve this Challenge” button at the top of this page to get started! Participants are encouraged to begin forming teams and identifying a faculty advisor at this time. It’s also a good idea to start familiarizing yourself with the competition rules to get a better understanding of what’s involved in participating.   

Bonus: Register your team by tomorrow, Sept. 15, and get FREE entrance to the RE+ 2022 conference in Anaheim, CA, taking place Sept. 19–22. Once you’re registered, reach out to for additional information and the free registration code. 

We hope to see you participate in the Solar District Cup this fall!


Join us at the RE+ Conference and Job Fair!

Sept. 1, 2022, 6:23 p.m. PDT by Robin Tuttle

Hello!

 

We are excited to invite you to the upcoming RE+ 2022 conference in Anaheim, CA, taking place Sept. 19–22. RE+ is North America’s largest renewable energy industry event and includes opportunities to learn about the solar and battery energy storage marketplace as well as to network with professionals. This year’s conference will feature Solar District Cup posters from the Class of 2021-2022 winning teams, as well as the RE+ Job Fair on Wednesday, Sept. 21—a dedicated space for job seekers and clean energy companies to connect. 

 

Anyone interested in participating in the Solar District Cup is invited to attend RE+ to meet the competition organizers, network with peers and industry members, and learn more about careers in the renewable energy sector. 

 

Thanks to our partners at RE+ Events, registered Solar District Cup team members can attend RE+ for free! This is your opportunity to make career connections, meet the competition organizers, and learn about products you might specify in your solar designs. 

 

If you are interested in this opportunity, complete the following steps:

  1. Register a Solar District Cup team prior to the conference by going to  https://www.herox.com/SolarDistrictCup, selecting “Solve this Challenge,” and registering a team.
  2. Contact  for additional information and the code for free student registration to attend the conference.

 

We hope to see you there!

The Solar District Cup organizers


Solar District Cup Class of 2022-2023 Informational Webinar Recording and Rules Now Available

Aug. 29, 2022, 9:30 a.m. PDT by NREL Challenge

See the recording of last week’s Class of 2022-2023 Informational Webinar and check out the official Rules for details about the competition.

If you missed the Informational Webinar yesterday, you can now catch up on everything by watching the webinar recording. During the presentation, the competition organizers reviewed programmatic details like participation expectations, rules, timeline of events, provided training, and more. 

Whether you’re interested in participating as a student or faculty advisor, we highly recommend reviewing this webinar to get further guidance on next steps. Plus, make sure you’re following the Solar District Cup on HeroX for the latest updates.

Additionally, the Rules document for the Class of 2022-2023 is now live! Review the Rules for details about the competition goals, requirements, participation options, and more. 

If you have remaining questions about the competition, you can post on the HeroX forum or email .

Watch the Class of 2022-2023 Informational Webinar recording now and register your team by Oct. 6 for participation in the full academic year!


Tomorrow: Don’t Miss the Solar District Cup Informational Webinar!

Aug. 24, 2022, 8:30 a.m. PDT by NREL Challenge

It’s your last chance to register for the Solar District Cup Informational Webinar happening tomorrow, Aug. 25, at 12 p.m. ET! Join us as competition organizers cover everything you need to know about competing in the Class of 2022-2023—including helpful changes to this year’s competition that will make it easier for more student teams to participate.

Register now and join us at noon eastern tomorrow to get all of your questions answered and to learn more about the great experiences and skills that students garner through participation in this unique competition. The webinar will be recorded and shared here on HeroX in the days following the event. 

We look forward to seeing you there!


Have Questions About Competing? Join the Informational Webinar for Answers

Aug. 16, 2022, noon PDT by NREL Challenge

Anyone interested in participating in the Solar District Cup Class of 2022-2023 is encouraged to attend a highly informative webinar on Aug. 25 at 12 p.m. ET. Competition organizers will cover all the basics around how—and why—to compete. 

Register now to save your place at this helpful session to learn all about submission requirements, important dates and deadlines, and changes to this year’s competition that were designed to make it easier for teams to participate. We’ll also talk about why this competition is so beneficial to students, and what experiences they can expect to walk away with!

Don’t miss your chance to hear all of this essential info first hand and ask questions of your own! We look forward to meeting this year’s prospective competitors.


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